There’s been a great deal of buzz this year about seeing Pete Buttigieg — someone who is part of the LGBTQIA+ community — doing so well in his campaign for the presidency. But what most of us don’t realize (and in fact, I didn’t even know until two weeks ago!) is that we’ve already had a queer person in the White House.
Okay, no, maybe not the President. But for sure, the First Lady Rose Cleveland. Rose Elizabeth Cleveland was born in Fayetteville, New York on June 14, 1846 to Richard Falley Cleveland and Ann Neal Cleveland. She was the youngest of nine children — counting Stephen Grover Cleveland among her older siblings. They mostly called her “Libby.”
In September of 1853, the family relocated to Holland Patent, New York where their father was appointed pastor of Presbyterian church. He died a month later, after preaching only one sermon. (I hope it was a good one!) Rose, at seven years old, took on the task of taking care of their widowed mother. Grover Cleveland — sixteen years old at the time — decided he was going to support the whole family. (One teenager supporting a family of ten — my how times have changed!)
When she was older, Rose became a student at the Houghton Seminary in Clinton, New York. Afterwards, she became a teacher so she could support herself and her mother. (I guess one teenager couldn’t support a family of ten after all.) Later, she taught at the Collegiate Institute in Lafayette, Indiana and a girls school in Muncy, Pennsylvania.
In the 1880’s, Rose went back to Holland Patent and taught Sunday school so that she would be able to take care of her mother, who’s health was not doing well. In 1882, Ann Cleveland passed away. Rose remained at their homestead for some time after this and continued to teach Sunday school. In one class, she gave a lecture in which she stated:
“We cannot touch humanity at large, except as we touch humanity in the individual. We make the world a better place through our concrete relationships, not through our vague, general good will. We must each find a true partner, someone who understands and appreciates us, someone whose faith in us brings out our best efforts. Our deepest craving is for recognition—to be known by another human being for what we truly are.”
And if that doesn’t sound like a great beginning to a coming out speech, I don’t know what does. But alas, we’re not there yet. In 1885, the unmarried Grover Cleveland was elected President of the United States — and suddenly, Rose had another family member who needed her help. She took on the role of First Lady, including standing next to Grover during his inauguration. She lived in the White House for two years — and fulfilled the duties of First Lady, although she found them to be frustrating. She was not a woman made for high society — she was fond of intellectual pursuits, and did not care much for fashion. The public’s infatuation with her dresses irked her, as did her inability to go to a public market. There were some perks however — her book of essays entitled George Eliot’s Poetry was a bestseller based almost entirely on her name recognition.
Eventually Grover married Frances Folsom, and Rose was able to leave the White House and actually, finally, do some things for herself! She became president of the Collegiate Institute in Indiana and also contributed to a magazine called Literary Life. In April of 1890, at 44 years old, she entered into a romantic and undeniably sexual relationship (the first of her life, that I can find) with a 33 year old widow named Evangeline Marrs Simpson who she had most likely met in Florida months earlier. However, six years later, against Rose’s urgings, Evangeline married Henry Benjamin Whipple. Although the women kept in touch after this, they were definitely not as…. let’s say intimate as they had been. Rose left for Europe shortly after the wedding, and did not return to the United States for three years.
Mr. Whipple died in 1901 and the pair reignited their relationship. In 1902, they traveled to Italy — and in 1910, they moved there. Evangeline told her caretaker at her home in Minnesota not to move anything. They established a home for themselves in Bagni di Lucca, in a house shared with Nelly Erichsen. Rose and Evangeline contributed a great deal to the community there, including establishing an orphanage. They also worked for the Red Cross during World War I, and helped move refugees displaced by the war to Bagni di Lucca. During the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918, Nelly contracted the illness. Rose took care of her, ultimately contracting the illness herself as a result. They died within days of each other.
After Rose’s death, Evangeline wrote “The light has gone out for me. . . . The loss of this noble and great soul is a blow that I shall not recover from.”
When Evangeline eventually died in 1930, she was buried next to Rose in Bagni di Lucca. It’s been said that, to the two of them, Italy represented the ultimate freedom to be themselves.
The letters Rose sent to her lover remained in Evangeline’s Minnesota home — untouched by the caretaker (who was way more obedient than I would have been) until they were gathered together with other papers and donated to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1969. The implication that there could have been a lesbian relationship was too much for them, so they hid the letters from the public until 1978. Rose’s letters have now been compiled into a book, Precious and Adored: The Love Letters of Rose Cleveland and Evangeline Simpson Whipple, 1890-1918.